Sabina Park: No Holdings Barred

RAJU BHARATAN

AS the fifth and final Test of nerves gets under way this Saturday weekend at Kingston, what more eloquent comment could Michael Holding proffer than to Pitch Report: "Sabina Park, here we come!" All Jamaica came roaring behind the Rolls-Royce of Fast Bowlers as Mikey - then sowing his wild cricketing oats - tore into the heart and soul of India's batting during the April 1976 Sabina Park Test. A Test traumatisingly surrendered by India inside four days. With a plaster-cast from forearm to finger ended up G.R. Visvanath here. An even more frightening casualty look wore Aunshuman Gaekwad - ear-struck and thunderstruck. Brijesh Patel had three Kingston stitches in his stiff upper lip to show for his audacity in having matched super centurion Visvanath stroke for stroke while hitting India to 6-wicket win in the preceding third (Port of Spain) Test. "This is cricket - if you get hit you have to take it!" was West Indies captain Clive Lloyd's no-Holdings-barred public retort at the end of it all. A cynical retort rationalising a Holding bouncing just not knowing where to draw the body-line. Indeed skipper Bishan Singh Bedi had refused to lead out India as Lloyd's West Indies needed but 13 runs to finish off that blood-and-guts Kingston Test - ultimately West Indies won by 10 wickets for the series to be settled 2-1 in abiding acrimony.

What is the position of Sourav and his men, then, as the West Indies, yet again, move to the fasties-for-courses Test that is Sabina - Park himself in comfort, here, Michael Holding alone could? No more believe this commentator's commentator if he tells you that there is no longer that devil in the Sabina Park wicket. Recall how the selfsame Michael Holding misled us about the bounce in the Kensington Oval wicket on that fatal first morning of the core third Test in the current series - for Sourav's India to be shot out for 102 off merely 202 balls? The Playground of 'the West', therefore, remains Sabina Park. It is where Michael Holding, as 'The Whispering Death', drove the fear of life into Indian batsmen. This after Sunil Gavaskar (b Holding 66), Aunshuman Gaekwad (56 not out) and Mohinder Amarnath (26 not out) had, at 178 for 1 by the clamorous end of the first day's play, all but taken away from Clive Lloyd a final Test he simply had to win to seal the series 2-1. All the live action we got those days was from the bikini-brief Doordarshan Samachar highlights. In times when the Windies superquicks could unleash as many as four bouncers in an over, skip Bedi declared India's Sabina Park innings closed, not once but twice (306 for 6 & 97 for 5) - in an effort to shield himself and B.S. Chandrasekhar from the health hazard posed by Mike Holding and Wayne Daniel. Bedi, in fact, is on record as declaiming:

"The West Indies' tactics in this (Sabina Park) Test were not part of the game. They were a deliberate effort to subdue us. When I lost the toss and we were put in on a lively wicket, I knew we had little hope. Still Sunil, Aunshuman and Mohinder displayed great courage on the first day. None of them flinched from the fast bowling. But there is a limit to courage when you are facing bowling at 90 mph. A lot of human beings would have conked out. I gave the umpires (Ralph Gosein and Douglas Sang Hue) a piece of my mind. It became so painful to watch that I had to make the disgusting gesture of declaring in a six-day Test." Words chosen with a Bedian sense of transparency that, sadly, only led to the impression, in faraway India, that we had, under Bishan, finished up as a team of squealers. Thus could Tony Cozier sound convincing while inveighing: "Bedi's action was plain and simple. The Indians had had enough and were calling it quits. Bedi was conspicuous by his absence when the Indians took the field. All this did little to improve India's image which had certainly got tarnished. It was a pity the series had to end like this because Bedi and his men had shown greater courage and determination than many other teams which have toured the Caribbean."

Verily had India's top order, Little Masterminded by Sunil Gavaskar, held exemplarily firm in adversity for our batsmen to symbolise profiles in courage during an era when pace was an ugly four-letter word in our approach, when the strongest four-letter word permitted in our cricket lexicon was spin. Let us do a swift recap of the trend of March-April 1976 events leading up to the fourth and final Sabina Park Test that had three Indian batsmen swathed in bandages. Adding insult to injury, not a soul turned up at Bombay's Santa Cruz Airport to greet our team on its return. It had been no piece of cake for Bedi's India to pick up the pieces after we had been crushed inside three days (by an innings and 97 runs) in the first Test at Bridgetown. That the two Tests to follow both came to be staged at Queen's Park Oval was as much India's good fortune as hard lines for Clive Lloyd. This saw India as a team (406 for 4 in the fourth innings of that third Test at Port of Spain) stand on a victorious peak till then scaled only by Don Bradman's invincible Australia (404 for 3 - end-July 1948: fourth Test at Leeds).

Even as India came daredevilashingly from behind to so win, Clive Lloyd sixth-sensed that, if already appointed West Indies skipper for the 1976 tour of England, his captaincy could still be on the line in the volatile Caribbean. Lloyd had just returned from Australia minus the anticipated world crown. The culture shock of being lynched 5-1 by Greg Chappell's Australia had sparked a Caribbean Isles-wide search for a scapegoat. In such a charged milieu, even Lloyd's clinching the first Test vs Bedi's India in his native Barbados won him but breathing time - seeing how two of the three remaining series matches came to be played at Port of Spain. The touch-and-go vein in which Lloyd's West Indies saved the second Test at Port of Spain (following "Calypson" Gavaskar's epic 156) hardly added to Lloyd's six-foot-plus stature. Next, in the third Test (also at Port of Spain), the bravura that Visvanath (112 run out) brought to taking up that plus-400 challenge from where Gavaskar (102) had signed off left Lloyd with but the rueful option of having to rebid for the series, at Sabina Park,from a never-visualised one-all position.

It was against such a backdrop that I asked Sunil, once he was back in India: "That head-hunting beamer we saw you barely manage to evade at Sabina Park in DD's Samachar highlights, how did it feel to measure up to it from Holding?" "Which beamer?" Sunil slyly sought to know, his tone making it obvious that beamers made no one beam. "There were so many of them bowled at us. Both Holding and Daniel bowled them regularly. Their technique was simple - mix a beamer with two-three bouncers in an over. Then, having shaken the batsman's confidence, produce a fast straight yorker to go through his defence. I did ask wicket-keeper Deryck Murray why they were still after me when they had virtually won that Sabina Park decider with three of our key men injured. Deryck said he had spoken to Clive about it, but they had simply been asked to turn their eyes away if they did not want to look!"

Let the last word on that acid April 1976 Sabina Park Test be that of spot reporter Tony Cozier, his despatch to India reading: "Holding especially was a frightening proposition, bowling at great pace and persistently threatening the batsman's life and limb with disconcerting lift. He removed Mohinder Amarnath (39) off his fifth delivery with the second new ball. It flew from no more than three yards in front of the batsman, straight at his throat. All Mohinder could do was involuntarily to put up the bat as a means of self-protection and Julien at backward short-leg held the catch. Visvanath filled the breach and was greeted with one of the wickedest bouncers of the series. It reared almost vertically at great speed and brushed his glove as he took evasive action, crashing into the boundary before wicket-keeper Murray could get close to it. Encouraged by the response he was getting, Holding repeatedly dug the ball in and it consistently rose chest high or more, three and four times an over. If the batsmen were not bobbing and weaving to avoid the ball, they were standing up on their toes to keep it down. Very rarely could they come forward. Eleven runs after Amarnath's departure, Visvanath (8) went in identical fashion. Holding hit the offending area of the (Sabina Park) pitch, the ball flew and Visvanath, scrambling to protect his rib-cage, fended it off to Julien. Gaekwad, battling through with great courage, suffered at least three blows on the fingers and, at other times, just narrowly avoided being struck. Yet he kept going until he received one from which there was no escape. It landed against his left ear. Throughout his career, Gaekwad (81 - retired hurt) will shudder every time he recalls how close he came to being hit on the temple."

To the same Sabina Park temple (with a prayer on their lips) return India for the final round - clad in helmet, thigh-pad and what not? With Michael Holding there in the box to give Merv Dillon & Co the psychological shove. What Sunny should here be recalling to Mikey is the supreme verdict on Gavaskar's improvised helmet after it had found its way into a London museum. The expert there picked it up and demanded to know which nut had made bold to sport it. Told that it was a batsman who had scored over 10,000 runs in Test cricket, pat came the chilling diagnosis: "The guy is lucky he was never struck by a red-hard cricket ball on this monstrous headgear. The fellow would have dropped dead on the spot."